Sophie's San Blas in 1998

San Blas by Sophie Jensen (1998)

The fog of hallucination that occasionally seems to envelop Mexico hovers over San Blas most of the time. The amiable residents talk of their future as the next Puerto Vallarta while they wave towels to keep off the abundant mosquitoes, and inquire if you don’t find their town ‘tranquilo’ while you yawn, stupefied from a night clamorous with the sound of competing bands which played until 3 a.m. They will assure you, straight-faced, that the shrimp and oysters here are ‘muy ricos,’ even as fishermen pull in with their nets nearly empty.

Some commercial establishments make much of a mythical pirate history; the place was never a pirate stronghold, but rather a base for repelling them.

All of this is part of the town’s goofy charm. It’s full of ruins--an old fort, church and counting house, once-teeming shrimp, clam and oyster beds, once-bountiful rare birds, at least three contemporary hotels, uncounted dreams. They all testify to its series of incarnations.

San Blas was occupied in 1531, but the official date of founding is 1768, when Don Manuel Rivera and 116 families arrived at the orders of the Viceroy Marquez de Croix, under the supervision of Don Jose de Gavez, representative of New Spain. At the height of its commercial period, the town had 30,000 inhabitants and became headquarters of Spain's General of the Southern Seas.

The old hillside ‘fort,’ or Contaduria, was built in 1770 as accounting offices for the town's extensive sea trade with the Orient. On its front are stone carvings of the kings of Spain. Down a slope from the Contaduria are the ruins of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, started in 1769. The ruins once contained the bronze bells which reportedly inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, ‘The Bells of San Blas,’ although Longfellow never did visit the town.

The ruins of a 19th century customs house are on Calle Benito Juarez, three blocks from the main plaza.

In the 18th century, hardwood forests, now long gone, were the raw materials for ships which did a brisk trade with the Philippines, until the shipping moved to a deepwater port at Manzanillo, and later to Acapulco. Father Junipero Serra departed from nearby Las Islitas beach on Matanchen Bay in the locally-built bark Purisima Concepcion on his journey to California on March 12, 1768. Once the shipping moved south, there was no further need for the government buildings or the hefty garrison, and the fort became a commercial building.

In the 1960s Hollywood had a brief hideaway flirtation with San Blas when the likes of actor Lee Marvin discovered the place’s good fishing and tolerance for rowdy parties.

Through the years, it has attracted, and continues to attract, bird-watchers. There’s an annual international gathering of bird buffs at the Garza Canela (formerly Las Brisas) Hotel, long the town’s one truly first-class hostelry. The hotel on the edge of town earns its good reputation. Three of the four daughters of the Vasquez family which owns it are fluently bilingual, one is quadrilingual; one studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and runs the kitchen, and another, when she learned a group of German scientists was booked for the 1991 eclipse, added German to her language repertoire of Spanish, English and French.

Hotel Flamingos

Downtown, the venerable Flamingos Hotel is sprucing up to attract a more upscale crowd, with remodeling that’s been going on for about three years. By this year, it may even be finished. One guidebook says the Flamingos was once a German consulate. That seems unlikely. More probably it was headquarters for a German trade mission involved in a farming joint venture. There are a few modest hotels, of which the Posada del Rey, with swimming pool, is the best-maintained, and a few ‘bungalow’ operations with kitchens and one or two bedrooms. Nicest of these is El Tesoro, on the estuary. The Suites San Blas has some kitchens and a pool.

Hotel Playa Hermosa - closed

Rock bottom on the hotel list, just a step up from sleeping on the beach, is the formerly elegant Playa Hermosa, on a lonely and beautiful stretch of beach about a mile from the plaza. It still gets drop-in visitors who gasp in dismay at its present condition and wax nostalgic over its grandeur when they were kids in the ‘50s and ‘60s. For a while, a few gringos were in residence on the top floor, in rooms remodeled and knocked together to create apartments with fabulous views (and daily water shortages and power outages). Intense upgrading efforts were going on two years ago, and it’s worth checking out if you must have quiet and can tolerate the bugs.

Some guide books have talked about San Blas’ platoons of giant mosquitoes, big enough to carry off dogs and small children. In a rainy summer, it’s easy to understand and forgive that hyperbole, but the fact is it’s the tiny jejenes (known as no-see-ums in many parts of the U.S.) that are the real problem. They’re a year-round menace, particularly at the new and full moons, at sunrise and dusk. They lay eggs under your skin and can cause a fearful itch to the sensitive. A friend who visited and scratched still bore scars on her legs a year later. And they’re an essential part of the region’s economy. The shrimp that breed in the estuaries of the mangrove stands feed on the mosquito and jejene larva.

Although perhaps not for much longer. A few years ago, having pretty much wiped out the shrimp grounds to the north, the shrimpers started coming to San Blas to harvest shrimp for farming--raising them in tanks. The government issued permits, with lots of conditions about which types of shrimp could be taken, and how many, which were largely ignored. Fishermen netted everything they could, leaving very few shrimp for the next year’s breeding season.

That’s approximately what happened to the clams and oysters several years ago. They were simply over-fished.

Several restaurants, both in town and on the beach, do very nice things with what’s left of the seafood. Tony’s La Isla, festooned with mesmerizing decor from the sea, is particularly good. The Wala Wala menu is more imaginative than most, the venerable McDonald’s (not of golden arches fame) is reliable and El Cocodril, better known as Chacha’s, is not to be missed, especially for its friendly ambiance at sidewalk tables on the plaza.

What is there to do in San Blas? Not a lot. Hang out on the beach during the day, hang out on the plaza or in whatever discos are operating this year at night, attend a weekend ‘travesti,’ an elegant transvestite musical revue.

San Blas feels no particular need to cater to tourists. Once, when a visiting American suggested to a restaurant owner that he might consider keeping change on hand for customers, he thought it over for a day, then informed the American, ‘This is San Blas; when people come here they should bring change.’

Playas Hermosa and El Borrego are the town’s main beaches, two adjoining strands of silvery gray sand that extend for about a mile and a half from the foot of Calle Heroicó Batallon de San Blas. Borrego, at the west end, has numerous open air restaurants (ramadas) serving seafood snacks and meals. Hermosa is at the left as you face the bay and ends at an estuary which separates it from Playa Las Islitas. The derelict Hotel Playa Hermosa, home to myriad fruit bats and the occasional reclusive visitor, is just before the estuary. Camping at this end of the beach, or visiting it alone, are not recommended. There have been robberies here. Close-in Playa Borrego is perfectly safe. Plan to leave the beach approximately an hour before sundown (about 5:30 p.m. in the winter months), when the mosquitoes and jejenes become active.

Nearby Las Islitas on Matanchen Bay has long, gentle waves ideal for extended surfing,which in the protected, curving bay, often the anchorage for visiting yachts. There are several ramadas along the beach serving food and drinks. Some charge a small fee for parking and use of tables when visitors bring their own picnics. The most-frequented section of beach ends at a rocky point topped by an occupied house and a cross. Beyond this is a very secluded beach, tempting to nude sunbathers. Avoid the temptation. Nudity is not allowed, and you could be arrested. Jejenes are even more fierce here than on the other beaches, particularly on overcast days. (Although brilliant sunshine often doesn’t deter them.)

Playa del Rey and the Huichol sacred island lie across an estuary from the customs house. This is not really an island, but the tip of a peninsula, and the southern end of the Marisma Nacional, or National Swamp, which ends just south of Mazatlan. Hire a panga at the boat dock to take you across, then walk across to the ocean and deserted beach. There are sometimes oyster divers here, rarely tourists. The boatman will come back to pick you up at a pre-arranged time. No shelter, no facilities.

The Huichol Indians, based in the remote hill towns, use the island for ceremonies, consigning their prayer arrows and God's Eyes to the water in appeals to the sea goddess Amara. You might see some of them floating in the water. Please leave them there. The Huichol are a familiar, and colorful, sight around town, the men in their embroidered muslin suits and plumed hats, the women in bright print outfits.

Photos by John Keegan

The main tourist attraction is the La Tovara Springs trip, an approximate three-hour guided boat trip through the estuary and mangrove swamps to a natural pool at La Tovara Spring, where you can swim, possibly in the company of an allegedly tame crocodile. There is a restaurant at the spring. Sunrise is the best time to see birds and animals along the way. The trip leaves from El Conchal, at the entrance to town (Guadalupe Victoria crossroads) or from Matanchen. The Matanchen trip is about one hour shorter and costs about $15 U.S. dollars per boat. From El Conchal the cost is about $20. Boats carry 4-6 people. To hire a boatman, go to one of the launching points and arrange a time for the trip, or call in advance. Javier at the phone store a block north of the plaza can help you with calls--he knows the boatmen who have phones and their numbers. It is customary to buy the boatman a meal during your stop at the spring.

In nearly three years of San Blas residency (don’t ask why, I don’t know, probably sheer laziness) I spent a fair amount of time as a volunteer at the tourist office and learned that despite its bugs and lack of amenities the town makes a good base for exploring. Here are some possibilities.